Art Chat with Brian Donnelly
Brian Donnelly's acclaimed work may seem straightforward at first glance, but it was accomplished after years of experimentation and a deconstructive philosophy that defacing an image can be just as profound as layering one. In anticipation of the unveiling of his painting, 'Heavy Lies the Crown' in Platinum Blend 2, we took an opportunity to have a chat with Donnelly and gain more insight into his work. Here he talks about being our neighbor to the North, his process, and Degrassi Junior High.
So you're from Canada, eh? How has living in the cold tundra of Toronto shaped your creativity?
Since most good YouTube videos aren't available in Canada I have a lot of distraction-free time to paint. Once you factor in the dead of winter and the desire to stay indoors as much as possible you've really got a recipe for a shut-in with poor social skills, or an artist.
Toronto's art community is fairly fast paced. Once something new comes up everyone is chomping at the bit to go further and create more. Almost as though nothing is ever enough to satisfy, and no one can sit still. It's kind of exhausting to work here now that I'm thinking aboot it.
The melting face portraits are a departure from your older works. How did this concept come about? Do you yourself describe them as 'melting faces'?
I describe them a lot of different ways; turpentine portraits, defaced portraits, solvent portraits, melting portraits. The paradoxical combination of ideas is what's really important to me. I was getting at it in my older work, but not aggressively enough. That work was about merging unlikely elements, specifically humans and animals; forcing them together to make something else. It was a kind of painted collage. The work I'm doing now seems like an abrupt sever rather than a progression, but it actually happened quite organically. I wanted the paradox to be the obvious theme of my work. Rather than painting over my work with new elements, I began to try to remove elements. I was effectively erasing my own work. I was setting out to make paintings, damage them beyond recovery, and have their destruction/rearrangement/total absence be considered as art. It's a little bit dadaist, and a little bit conceptual, but it's an exciting problem for me to solve. What I've arrived at isn't necessarily portraits of individuals, instead they're portraits of loss.
Tell us about your process. How does a work evolve from conception to completion?
I write a lot of notes on how things get damaged or vandalized or removed as I encounter them. How that loss/damage changes an object or affects the immediate surroundings. I then try to translate how the same action would affect a painted surface/object. What are the remnants of that action? Are those remnants able to be presented visually or as a conception? I usually mull an idea over for a while before I begin testing the outcomes and perfecting a presentable result. From here it's a matter of laying out the full visual, painting a portrait, and committing to destroying it. Which is sometimes more difficult to do than I anticipate.
Your work for Platinum Blend 2, 'Heavy Lies the Crown' is quite striking - no only for the dissolving visage, but also for the mounds of beautiful blonde hair. Tell us about the inspiration behind this piece.
It was actually the first elaborate hairstyle I had laid out for a turpentine piece. I was looking for something ornate and beautiful to compete visually with the pigmented viscera that turpentine creates. I wanted it to feel like it was unraveling. I started thinking about 18th Century French hairstyles and how elaborate they were, take LeBrun's portrait of Marie Antoinette for example. The meeting of that level of pomp and pageantry with the destructive nature of my work was irresistible. It's actually lead me down a path of more complex and interesting hair in my work, which I think provides something more to consider in terms of loss.
If you could hang only one artwork from art history in your home or studio, what would it be and why?
I've been watching a lot of documentaries about art world auctions, private collectors who own the most valuable work in the world, and art theft lately. They've brought me to the conclusion that I don't want any of them. I mean, I'd love to wake up everyday to the tip of the spear in Rembrandt's "Night Watch", but if I were the only one seeing it I think I'd begin to feel guilty. Guilty of not sharing that with everyone. Public collections are integral to how we shape our culture. I don't think I could take away from that. I'll settle for my partner's and my framed collection of maps to museums we've visited.
Tell us something about yourself we wouldn't necessarily know.
I write a blog about seeking out and documenting all of the shoot locations from the 80's Canadian teen drama "Degrassi Junior High". Seriously. www.degrassipanthers.com
If I were to spend the day with Brian, what could I expect?
Do you want to see Joey Jeremiah's house?
Platinum Blend 2 opens January 9th at Modern Eden Gallery, 801 Greenwich St., San Francisco, CA 94133, www.moderneden.com